This dog won’t hunt…and other dog related idioms

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By Dr. Parker T. Barker

Over the course of the years, many idioms about dogs have taken hold in our language. An idiom is a meaning created by how a word or phrase is used that is different from its literal meaning. Sayings like “my dogs are barking” which means “my feet hurt” in friendly conversation is an example of an idiom.

If you stop to think about it, I am betting you can come up with several in your own vocabulary that are part of your regular lexicon. My mom uses “It’s raining cats and dogs” all the time to describe the torrential rains we get sometime. Sometimes I laugh when I think about my pal Percy arriving amid millions of raindrops. I can guarantee you he wouldn’t be too happy that I know.

Some believe “it’s raining cats and dogs” originated with Norse mythology. Odin was the god of storms and was attended by dogs and wolves. Sailors often credited him with rain. Or it could have come from medieval mythology, when witches often used cats in their spells and rode them through the air, even during storms. Kind of a lumpy precursor to a broom. Or it may be because dogs and cats tend to seek higher ground in the form of rooftops during storms. While waiting out the storm they may have been swept off the roof, and for all intense and purposes looked like it was raining cats and dogs. Who knows? But over the years, there is a very clear image of what this idiom means.

Here’s another one. Down here, there is lots of chatter about the “dog days of summer.” Aren’t they all dog days of summer? So where did that expression come from? It describes the hottest time of the summer when both dogs and people try to find a shady, cool spot to lie down and wile away the hottest part of the day and do nothing. Another way to describe it is it is one of those days when it is so hot, and the air is barely moving, and everybody is on the porch with a fan trying to simply get through the day. Today, thank god, they have been replaced by air conditioning in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Those dog days of summer are very real around the Lowcountry. Another variation on this is dog days are in the middle of the summer when the Dog Star, Sirius, rises and sets with the sun.

Not all animal idioms are necessarily positive. Using the phrase “it was a total dog and pony show” can certainly be derogatory. A dog and pony show (or act) is negative phrasing meaning an elaborate attempt to impress someone with something that does not really have true value or substance. Imagine someone in sales, (sorry friends) who is trying to get you to buy, or join, something new and they pull all the stops out to attempt to convince you it is a “must have” product or organization. Dancing girls are not unheard of in a dog and pony show.

There are lots more. I have listed some below but I’m sure there are many others out in the world. Let us know the ones we missed by putting them in the comments section of our website,

Do you know what these idioms mean?

Why keep a dog and bark yourself? ~ Meaning: Why hire someone to do something, and then do it yourself?

That dog won’t hunt. ~ Meaning: That won’t work, forget it.

Three dog night ~ Meaning: Very cold; referring to the number of dogs you need to cuddle up with in order to stay warm.

I’ve got to go see a man about a dog ~ Meaning: I’m going to the restroom.

Like a dog with two tails ~ Meaning: Very happy.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world ~ Meaning: Take what you want and only look out for yourself because that’s what everyone else is doing. Personally I find this thought very unsettling. 

Gone to the dogs ~ Meaning: Something has lost all its good qualities and gone bad.

Every dog has its day ~ Meaning: Andy Warhol explained the phrase by saying that everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame.

Let sleeping dogs lie ~ Meaning: Don’t wake up anything that may cause trouble or be a problem. 

How many of these expressions do you use in your regular conversation? I was surprised at how many Mom uses every day. Maybe that is because she is a self-professed “dog person.” Here are some more for you to try out on your next family gathering:

• the dog ate my homework
• fight like cats and dogs
• a sly dog
• as sick as a dog
• be like a dog with a bone
• Hot diggety dog!
• you are a lucky dog